Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Game 68: Asteroids (VCS)

Buy Asteroids and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Read the manual here:

Once again, Atari went overboard with padding their games mode count. Its 66 game count sounds less egregious than Space Invaders’ 112, and yet it feels far worse.

The most offensive option here is extra lives. Without it, there would be 18 game variations. With it, there are 66. Is Atari really trying to push “extra life at 5,000 points” and “extra life at 10,000 points” as separate games? I’m not buying it.

The one player / two players option sounds cool, with having two ships blowing up asteroids together. I thought this was the best feature of Atari’s Space Invaders. Just one problem; here, the two player modes merely alternate, making them completely pointless.

“Features” dictates what your ship does when you press down on the joystick. “H” is the hyperspace jump found in the arcade version. “SH” means shields, and “FL” means an instant 180 degree turn, which sounds quite useful. “W” means nothing happens.

Modes 33 and 66 are “children’s” modes, described in the manual as easy games with slow asteroids, hyperspace, and an extra ship every 5,000 points. But it doesn’t say what makes that any different from modes 1 and 34, and from playing, I couldn’t really tell.

If these game modes were arranged as an options menu, it may have looked like this:
  • Players: 1 / 2
  • Children mode: Off / On (On disables all options below)
  • Asteroid speed: Slow / Fast
  • Extra life every: 5k points / 10k points / 20k points / never
  • Features: Hyperspace / Shields / Flip/ None

If we took out the options that look like lazy padding to me, it would look like this:
  • Asteroid speed: Slow / Fast
  • Features: Hyperspace / Shields / Flip

That would be 6 modes, rather than 66.

Difficulty switches control whether or not UFOs appear. Off would be no fun, so I turned them on. I’m surprised Atari didn’t just use this setting to double the number of game modes.

Mode 1: Slow, extra lives at 5,000 pts, hyperspace

Oh dear. This mode is amazingly boring! The asteroids, now colorful blobs, just sort of move up and down the sides of the screen, being no threat at all to you as long as you don’t move left or right. The UFOs aren’t much of a threat either.

In accordance with the VCS’s limitations, big and medium asteroids usually don’t split when shot, but just shrink instead.

Eventually I started moving just out of sheer boredom. After that, I quit out of sheer boredom. I decided I would not play any slow modes from here on.

Mode 10: Fast, extra lives at 5,000 pts, shields

Fast asteroids make a huge gameplay difference. Oddly, the asteroids don't seem to be any faster, but they actually change their trajectory when shot, making them almost a credible threat. Almost.

I never used the hyperspace option in the arcade game or the VCS port, but shields are an interesting substitute. Unfortunately, they trivialize any difficulty in the game by providing a reliable invincibility option for whenever you think you might be in trouble. Granted, overusing shields will kill you, but you’d almost have to try for that to happen. I can also kind of imagine that this would be more difficult with a real VCS controller, as you have to push “down” to activate them. And the “fast” asteroids are still much slower than their arcade counterparts.

The first few rounds are still so boring that I cut them out of the video in order to spare you a modicum of the tedium that I went through. I did not need to use the shields at all during the cut portion.

Mode 18: Fast, extra lives at 5,000 pts, flip

I lost the footage for this one. I didn’t care enough to try to re-create it.

The flip option instantly reverses your ship’s direction. For this game, I decided to play it more mobile, not because it seemed like a good strategy, but because staying still was already pretty boring, and reversing your ship’s direction also seemed better suited to a mobile playstyle, giving you the ability to move in one direction and instantly turn around so you could shoot in the other.

I kind of imagined it being more interesting, but inertia isn’t as big a deal in the VCS port as it was in the original, so the whole “shoot backwards while moving” scenario wasn’t as common or dramatic as I envisioned. I still quit out of boredom long before I ran out of lives.

Still, this mode was the closest I came to having fun with this port, having a ship option that I actually wanted to use, but not one as overpowered as shields.

I just don’t think the VCS was suited to this game. Even at its best, it’s slow, repetitive, and predictable, with far too little going on in the screen to be interesting. I’ve used the word “boring” a lot in this post. I suppose breaking big rainbow-colored rocks down into smaller rocks at a pleasantly relaxing pace without much threat of failure could hold a Zen-like appeal, but that’s not why I play video games.


  1. Man, you've got to be autistic or something. How can you flame the games of 1978 by the standards of 2019?

    This game was ASTEROIDS. It was an Atari game that was wildly popular in the arcades. But now you can play it at home! No more quarters! That it couldn't replicate the arcade experience because the 2600 was a piece of junk? What an original observation. Heck, I made the same observation when I was 8.

    You also completely fail to understand that people weren't game experts back then. Video games train hand-eye coordination, an ability that has to be learned. A lot of people sucked at games, and appreciated the lower difficulty.

    I don't get why you get all bent out of shape about the game modes. Who cares? It was a big deal back then to have more game modes. More game modes is more better because it makes consumers think they're getting more bang for their buck. A big concept back then was "screens". Donkey Kong had 4 screens. Other games had more. More screens meant a more sophisticated and therefore better game. Failing to recognize the historical context behind Atari minmaxing their game modes makes you look like a whiny child.

    1. You have a point here. He plays the games and write his opinion as a modern player. He could apply some insight about how this game was played when released.
      But there is no need to be so abrasive. Ahab does a great work here, he can improve of course, but you can say it without calling him autistic or whiny child.
      Also, writing this kind of comments as anonymous is unfair, put your name and let him reply you properly.
      Arcade games age worse than others genres. In an adventure or cRPG game the important parts are story, puzzles or game mechanics (just my opinion) but in an arcade game graphics, sound and things like collision detection are more important. For this reason, there are old cRPG and adventure blogs but few or none old arcade blogs. So, I am glad he covers them.
      Thank you and keep on.

    2. I don't have any insight to how this game was played when it was released. I didn't really start playing video games at home until the NES era, and this kind of game wouldn't have impressed me then. Several of the earliest NES titles were single-screen arcade style games, and I always found them too simplistic. I'd rent them on a Friday and be done with them before Saturday. The 66 modes would have been lost on me too - I'd have probably only played the anemic Mode 1 and not even realized there were 65 more.

      Historical anecdotes on player reception are difficult to come by, and I'd rather not put words into hypothetical audience's mouths. For what it's worth, Video magazine awarded it GOTY 1981, picking it over Missile Command, but I wouldn't have.

      The best I can do is to compare it to what came before, and IMO, Space Invaders and Missile Command were better coin-op VCS conversions. They captured the spirit of the arcade games they were based on, and Asteroids didn't.

    3. Also, Video says that test audiences at a trade show disliked the prototype, where the asteroids only moved up across the left edge of the screen or down across the right edge of the screen. That sounds an awful lot like how "slow" asteroids work in the final product, which still accounts for 34 of the 66 game modes.

  2. I agree, I never liked this game much and never got why it always seems to be considered one of the greatest games on the system. Yeah, it's technically Asteroids that you can play at home, but it's such a pale imitation of the arcade original that's a very big "technically". Pac-Man's 2600 port constantly gets flak for not resembling the Arcade original to an acceptable enough degree, so why does THIS get a pass?

    At the end of the day, the arcade game is fun and this port just isn't. It's slow and tedious and just plain boring.

  3. I'm moved to comment due to the unfair, harsh , and dare l say it cowardly (not putting a name to the post).

    Of course ahab is commenting from 2019, it's the only place he's got to come from.

    Further to that... It's a bad game. It actually wasn't that good then, and lack of competition doesn't make a game good looking back at it.


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